Depression – a Case of Mindfulness over Medication?

29 April 2016

Findings from the biggest ever review of mindfulness have shown that the practice can control depression just as well as mood-enhancing medication.

Researchers at Oxford University carried out a meta-analysis into the effectiveness of mindfulness and discovered that this type of therapy prevented relapse as well as ant-depressant drugs do.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (MBCT) claims to be a combination of 21st century science and ancient wisdom. Patients are encouraged to accept their negative emotions and thoughts through meditation, without altering their emotional state or producing spiralling thoughts of despair.

The MBCT program takes place twice weekly for eight consecutive weeks and a day-long class is conducted during week five. It is a group intervention, but much of the work is carried out outside of the classes, when patients make mindfulness part of their daily lives through guided meditation.

Studying nine trials carried out in Britain, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, the analysis found that 38% of people who took mindfulness therapy relapsed back into depression within five months. This is in comparison to 49% who did not receive mindfulness treatment.

In comparison to those who continued taking anti-depressants, patients who practiced mindfulness were 23% less likely to suffer depression again within five months, even if they ceased taking medication. Despite these findings, the researchers warn that it’s too early to determine whether or not mindfulness therapy is better than medication. In any case, they claim that it provides an alternative for the millions of people suffering with repeated depression.

Willem Kuyken, lead author of the study and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, said that the findings show a significant, albeit small, benefit of MBCT, either in conjunction with or as an alternative to mood-boosting drugs in relation to decreased relapse rates.

Mr Kuyken said that although MBCT is not a solid solution, it clearly offers patients with a considerable history of depression an alternative approach to learning new ways to improve their condition in the long-term.

He went on to say that MBCT provides patients with an empowering, safe treatment option in addition to other supportive approaches like maintenance anti-depressants and cognitive behavioural therapy. He concluded that more research is necessary to ensure recovery rates move closer to 100% and to help prevent the initial onset of depression at an earlier stage of life.

In the UK, around three million people suffer from depression. Without continual treatment, four in five will relapse at some point in the future. This analysis showed that mindfulness therapy can be especially helpful for those with the most depressive symptoms. Last year, almost 60 million anti-depressants were dispensed in England alone. That’s almost double the amount in 2014.

Many forms of anti-depressants have severe side effects and can even lead to suicidal thoughts. This study, in contrast, did not find any evidence of adverse side effects in association with mindfulness.